The sheer grandeur and history of Russia's imperial capital never fail to amaze, but this is also a city with a revolutionary spirit.
City of the Tsars
The creation of westward-looking Peter the Great, St Petersburg was intended from its inception as a display of imperial Russia’s growing status in the world. Fine-tuned by Peter’s successors, who employed a host of European architects to add fabulous palaces and cathedrals to the city’s layout, St Petersburg grew to be the Romanovs’ showcase capital and Russia’s first great, modern city. The capital may have moved back to Moscow following the revolution, but despite all that history has thrown at it, St Petersburg still feels every bit the imperial city with its historic heart largely frozen in time.
Venice of the North
Whether you’re cruising along the elegant canals, crossing one of the 342 bridges in the city, or just watching them being raised in summer over the mighty Neva River at night to allow ships to pass through, you’re never far from water in St Petersburg. This has earned the city unsurprising comparisons to Venice, but the similarities don’t stop there: walking around the historic centre will reveal canals lined by Italianate mansions and broken up by striking plazas adorned with baroque and neoclassical palaces. North of the city centre there are also pristine beaches fringing the Gulf of Finland.
St Petersburg is an almost unrivalled treasure trove of art and culture. You can spend days in the Hermitage, seeing everything from Egyptian mummies to Picassos, while the Russian Museum, spread over four sumptuous palaces, is perhaps the best collection of Russian art in the world. Add to this world-class ballet, opera and classical concerts at the illustrious performance halls, and a slew of big-name music festivals over the summer months, and you won’t be stuck for cultural nourishment. Contemporary art is also available at the fantastic Erarta Museum, the Street Art Museum and in the buzzing gallery scene.
All Seasons City
Summer White Nights are legendary: the northern sun barely dips below the horizon. Revelry begins in May, with parks and gardens greening with flowering trees, and peaks in mid-June when performing arts festivals pack out concert halls and the entire city seems to party all night long. It's the busiest time to visit and the crowds can often be overwhelming. But Piter, as the city is affectionately known, is just as beautiful in early spring, golden autumn and even winter: the skies may be leaden and the ground covered in snow, but the culture still dazzles and delights.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout St Petersburg.
The Hermitage fully lives up to its sterling reputation. You can be absorbed by its treasures for days and still come out wanting more. The enormous collection (over three million items, only a fraction of which are on display in 360 rooms) almost amounts to a comprehensive history of Western European art. Viewing it demands a little planning, so choose the areas you’d like to concentrate on before you arrive.
The Grand Palace is an imposing building, although with just 30-something rooms, it is not nearly as large as your typical tsarist palace. From the start of June to the end of September it is open to foreign tourists only between noon and 2pm, and again from 4.15pm to 5.45pm (to 7.45pm on Saturdays), due to guided tours being only in Russian at other times (it is quite possible to leave your group, however).
Facing Millionnaya ul, the New Hermitage was built for Nicholas II in 1852, to hold the growing art collection and as a museum for the public. Designed by German neoclassicist architect and painter von Klenze, the historically preserved rooms house the museum's collections of ancient art, European paintings, sculptures and decorative art.
This stunning mint-green, white and gold profusion of columns, windows and recesses, with its roof topped by rows of classical statues, was commissioned from Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1754 by Empress Elizabeth. Catherine the Great and her successors had most of the interior remodelled in a classical style by 1837. It remained an imperial home until 1917, though the last two tsars spent more time in other palaces.
The east wing of this magnificent building, wrapping around the south of Dvortsovaya pl and designed by Carlo Rossi in the 1820s, marries restored interiors with contemporary architecture to create a series of galleries displaying the Hermitage's amazing collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works. Contemporary art is here, too, often in temporary exhibitions by major artists.
The classical Small Hermitage, which evolved from a series of buildings constructed between Palace Sq and the Neva between 1764 and 1769, was used by Catherine the Great as a retreat and to house the art collection started by Peter the Great, which she significantly expanded.
One of the greatest attractions outside of St Petersburg is the jaw-dropping collection of gilded fountains, statue-lined lanes and picturesque canals that make up the Lower Park of Peterhof. Even if you'd rather not brave the crowds to visit the palace, it's still well worth a visit here, to see its over-the-top Grand Cascade and other water features, including trick fountains that douse unsuspecting visitors.
Facing the Neva, this section of the museum (also known as the Large Hermitage) dates from the time of Catherine the Great. It mainly houses Italian Rennaissance art including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Tiepolo.
Housed in the south wing of the Sheremetyev Palace, this touching and fascinating literary museum celebrates the life and work of Anna Akhmatova, St Petersburg’s most famous 20th-century poet. Akhmatova lived here from 1926 until 1952, invited by the art scholar Nikolai Punin, who lived in several rooms with his family. The two had a long-running affair, somewhat complicated by the tight living situation – Punin didn't want to separate from his wife.